A Jaynesian Philology: The Bible as a Written Record of the Dawn of Consciousness

James Cohn, Invited address at The Julian Jaynes Society Conference on Consciousness and Bicameral Studies, Charleston, WV, June 2013.

Abstract: In 1976, Julian Jaynes hypothesized that our ancestors were acculturated to understand their mental life in terms of obedient responses to auditory prompts, which they hallucinated as the external voice of God. Although these “bicameral” people could think and act, they had no awareness of choices or of choosing — or of awareness itself. Jaynes claimed that one could trace this cultural transformation over the course of a scant millennium by analyzing the literature of the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament,” OT). Jaynes himself, however, was not skilled in Hebrew or cognate languages, and was forced to rely on translations and secondary sources. This presentation tests Jaynes’s assertions by examining passages from the OT text, as seen through the lens of the Documentary Hypothesis and modern critical historical scholarship. The writers of the oldest texts had no words in their cultural lexicon to correspond to our words such as “mind” or “imagination” or “belief.” Translations into English that employ such mentalistic words are misleading. By sharp contrast, in the later OT texts, a lexicon of rich interiority appears. The writers have become acculturated to experience mental life as a rich introspective consciousness, full of internal mind-talk and “narratization,” and perceiving their own actions as the result, not of obedience to an external voice, but of self-authorized, internal decisions. This presentation explores the relationship of introspective consciousness and language; the disappearance of prophetic voices in biblical literature over a specific time frame; the question of when and why a theory of mind arose in human development; and the appearance of vestiges of earlier mentalities in modern mental life.

Available in the Member Area